The Deal with it, America tournament tour concludes Monday night for Kentucky.
Three weeks of an all-freshmen team taking down more experienced squads reaches a climax at 8 p.m. when the Wildcats meet Connecticut for the NCAA Championship.
It’s not supposed to happen this way, winning a title with rookies. It never has happened before. Michigan’s Fab Five lost in their title shot more than two decades ago.
But here it is, a Wildcats team in which the key components were playing prep or high school ball last year, battling for commemorative caps, t-shirts and net necklaces.
“We have a little swagger to us right now,” freshman guard Aaron Harrison said.
As if Kentucky needs it.
The program magnifies one of the college basketball’s biggest issues, something it is powerless to control. Because the very best amateurs cannot turn professional until they are 19 years old, college becomes a pit stop on the way to the NBA.
College as an NBA internship, if you will.
Kentucky has cornered the market on these players. Forward Julius Randle and guard James Young pop up on mock draft boards operated by draft analysts, and with high-level performances in the tournament run, the draft stock of others such as Harrison may be peaking.
Nobody has taken greater advantage of the rule than Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has won with such one-and-dones as Derrick Rose, John Wall and Anthony Davis, and he doesn’t apologize for recruiting top talent and bidding the player farewell after one year.
“There’s a lot of different ways to play this game and there’s a lot of different ways to teach it,” Calipari said. “My whole thing is, I’m coaching the hand that’s dealt. This is what we have.”
It’s been enough to push a team that lost 10 games entering the tournament through an amazing run that started with a seven-point victory over Kansas State. Turns out, that’s been the Wildcats’ largest victory margin in the five-game run.
Kentucky survived top-seeded Wichita State when Shockers guard Fred VanVleet missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. Regional victories over Louisville and Michigan were heavyweight battles, with Harrison delivering the decisive blow with go-ahead three-pointers.
Harrison did the same thing Saturday against Wisconsin, only more dramatically, throwing in a deep three with 5.7 seconds remaining to provide the winning margin in a 74-73 survival.
Freshmen aren’t supposed to play like this.
But are they supposed to be in school for only one year?
Remember, the 19-year-old age limit isn’t a college rule. The NBA Players Association established the guideline in 2006, as Kevin Durant was entering Texas. He and Ohio State’s Greg Oden were the first high-profile players under the new order. The next year, Rose and UCLA’s Kevin Love followed.
With nearly a decade of one-year wonders as the sample size, college officials have grown louder expressing their frustration with the rule.
Colleges as a pro sports training ground is a concept Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby would like to change, and he called the NBA “irresponsible in not providing other legitimate opportunities for kids that really don’t want to go to college.”
But Randle, seen as the top pro prospect of the Wildcats’ freshmen, said he likely would have attended college instead of becoming a professional out of high school, if that option was available.
“I probably still would have gone to college,” Randle said. “It’s what I needed as far as a maturity level. A lot of people think they’re ready, but they’re not.”
The idea that something’s wrong with collecting this much young talent under one program rankles Calipari.
“The issue of one-and-done has now become a bad connotation,” Calipari said. “So, we’re going to break out something new this week to get you guys off this one-and-done, so that we can think about it another term.”
And Calipari came up with one.
“You cannot proceed until you succeed,” Calipari said.
Succeed and proceed. Cute. But Calipari says he doesn’t talk to recruits about staying in school only one year. He tells them not to plan on a one-year career.
“But if after one year, there are options, that’s up to you and your family,” he said.
Undoubtly, Calipari’s success at the one-and-done at Kentucky and Memphis becomes its own recruiting tool.
It doesn’t always work. Last year, Alex Poythress arrived with the idea of remaining one year. He didn’t develop as quickly and now comes off the bench as a sophomore. In fact, last year was a disaster. Kentucky was relegated to the NIT after a scuffling regular season and dropped its first game to Robert Morris.
But with three Final Fours in four years and an opportunity to win a second national title since 2012, Kentucky has hit on the formula that allows teams to succeed and proceed in the NCAA Tournament.